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. Forum: Join a Discussion on Randy Cohen's 'Ethicist' Column

. The Ethicist




Brooklyn Heights, NY
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Price Is Right


Published: November 30, 2003

I occasionally traffic in Persian carpets. A fellow came over about one I'd advertised for $130. He offered $160 -- evidently he remembered the $175 price of another carpet and was trying to bargain. I accepted, and we each felt we got a great deal. My housemate, Dave, says, ''No harm, no foul.'' My wife thinks I ripped the guy off. Counsel? J. C., California

I'm with Dave. Your customer voluntarily offered $160; you're free to accept. Your ad did not promise to sell the carpet for $130, only to honor that price for anyone who saw the ad and invoked it. (Hence some offers include the words ''on presentation of this ad.'') There's nothing dishonorable about various prices for the same thing when there's no hint of bait and switch or other conniving. Hotels, airlines and car-rental firms, for example, sometimes quote one rate to those who book online, another for those who phone; a house listed for sale at one price is often bid up to another.


In fact, if a spendthrift potentate, say, the ghost of Louis XV, wandered in and offered you a gazillion for the rug, you could accept that too. (Assuming you didn't exploit the ghost's ignorance of the franc-dollar exchange rate or of the nonexistence of the spirit world.)

Years ago I asked a favorite professor for a graduate-school recommendation. I planned to apply to two schools, so he sent two sealed envelopes with recommendations enclosed. I was accepted by one school before I applied to the other. I still have the second envelope, unopened to this day. My professor died a short while ago. May I open it? N.B., Vermont

Your professor has passed beyond the realm where any sublunary behavior can impair his ability to write a dispassionate reference letter. And so, unless you vowed not to, you may open the envelope. In doing this, you'd conform to the common practice of unsealing sensitive records after the deaths of those who might be discomfited by them. And while some living professors may find it inhibiting to know that their recommendations may be read after they've departed this vale of tears and blue-book exams, this risk seems slight (and can be easily curtailed by their including a no-read-ever provision when asked for such notes). The greater danger is that you may not like what you read.

Send your queries to or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 229 West 43rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, and include a daytime phone number.

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